Senate Passes Reforms to Toxic Substances Control Act

The U.S. Senate voted on December 17 to approve a sweeping chemical safety bill after months of negotiations.

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, named after the late New Jersey senator, updates the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act to give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) broad new powers to study and regulate harmful chemicals like asbestos, while restricting the ability of individual states to make their own rules, according to The Hill. Lautenberg had made chemical reform his top priority before his death in 2013.

Senators David Vitter and Tom Udall built a broad coalition of senators, industry, and safety advocates in support of the measure. The Senate approved the measure by voice vote Thursday evening after Sen. Barbara Boxer dropped the hold she had placed on the legislation, The Hill reports. Boxer felt the legislation did not go far enough to protect health and the environment.

Vitter said the measure is “a comprehensive, effective, thoughtful, bipartisan bill,” and called its passage a “historic day.” He said in a statement, “As we honor the legacy of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, we also move toward the future embracing these major, necessary reforms to our nation’s broken chemical safety law.” Udall call the move “a great milestone,” and he thanked the many senators “who have worked to make this day possible.” Udall said the bill is “the product of years of collaboration and positive input from lawmakers across the country, who understand that we need a national solution to our broken chemical safety law.”

EPA decisions about chemicals would have to be made solely on the basis of the impact on health and the environment, not the compliance costs. But the legislation also has significant provisions that the chemical industry asked for, including restrictions on what states can do on their own. The industry said such restrictions are essential to avoid a patchwork of rules.

Both health and industry groups counted major wins in the legislation. Fred Krupp, executive director of EDF Action, the lobbying arm of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) said passage of the legislation “gives us the best chance in two generations to put an end to a national scandal — a dangerously ineffective chemical safety system that was broken on arrival in 1976,” according to The Hill. EDF said reform to the chemical law were needed because, “With tens of thousands of chemicals in use today, the problem is much too big for individual consumers, product companies, retailers or states to handle on their own. We need a robust national program, rather than the current piecemeal approach that leaves many without any protections whatsoever.”

Among its provisions, the bill:

  • Mandates safety reviews for all chemicals in active commerce.
  • Requires a safety finding for new chemicals before they can enter the market.
  • Explicitly requires protection of vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women.
  • Gives EPA enhanced authority to require testing of both new and existing chemicals.
  • Sets aggressive, judicially enforceable deadlines for EPA decisions.
  • Makes more information about chemicals available, by limiting companies’ ability to claim information as confidential.


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